Are we capable of acting against the aging of our brain, and thus fighting cognitive decline, in the same way that we can act against the aging of the rest of our body? Over the past few decades, scientific studies have examined the effects of mind training – meditation – on the body and mind.

In partnership with the Alzheimer’s Research Foundation, Matthieu Ricard, Ilios Kotsou and Dr. Olivier De Ladoucette, met on September 21st for a panel discussion on the theme “Brain Aging and Meditation”.

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The ability to let “thoughts rise and fall as soon as they appear, instead of letting them invade our mind” is acquired, like all skills and knowledge, with practice. It is therefore possible to emancipate oneself from some of the chains of cognitive aging and thus contribute to preventing or slowing down age-related degenerative diseases through the practice of mindfulness.

Matthieu Ricard

Ilios Kotsou is a doctor of psychology and researcher of mindfulness. “Meditation practice has a significant effect on the tendency to avoid negative information. It makes us more connected and more lucid about the reality of what surrounds us.”

Olivier De Ladoucette is president and founder of the Alzheimer’s Research Foundation. He also teaches the psychology of aging. “Contrary to popular belief, personality changes relatively little with age. If you become a pain in the ass as you get older, either you were already a pain in the ass, or you had trouble adapting to the mourning of advancing age.”

Opening up to the world through meditation

Far from preconceived ideas, meditation is an active and conscious practice. Over time, through exercise and perseverance, meditation shapes our mind and develops our capacity for control, discernment, and insight. We spend a lot of time improving the external conditions of our lives, but ultimately, it is always the mind that creates our experience of the world and translates it into well-being or suffering. To be able to consciously act upon our way of perceiving is to be able to transform the quality of our life.

This is the type of transformation that is brought about by training the mind, which is called “meditation,” an exercise that is far from being limited to attention and what is now called “mindfulness”. Mindfulness meditation trains the mind to a kind of lucidity that will deconstruct the beliefs one had before. This training of the mind does not imply a cultural or religious belief. There is therefore a purified form of mindfulness practice, detached from the more religious forms of meditation. Mindfulness exercises therefore have a role in the phenomenon of neuroplasticity, as scientific studies have shown.

The effects of regular practice

Recent scientific studies conducted by Dr. Gaëlle Chételat, a researcher at Inserm (National Institute of Health and Medical Research), have shown that the regular practice of meditation influences emotional stability, and also has a notable impact on aging. Meditation leads to a greater distance from thoughts, thus restoring the link between body, mind, heart and emotions. The practice of meditation makes one more present, and leads the practitioner to a more intense anchoring in life. This connection to the present moment strengthens one’s ability to be discerning in daily life, through greater attention to the behaviors and needs of others, as well as to one’s own. Finally, meditation guides practitioners to an awareness of the impermanence of life.

According to Ilios Kotsou, mindfulness also influences social behaviors: the alignment between body and mind leads to a sense of fulfillment, creating the conditions for social relationships. This social tendency has a direct impact on health, as loneliness has deleterious effects, especially on life span. The way we approach life has a direct influence on our health, serenity and wonder being the sources of a rich and fulfilling social life. The construction of this connection with the other goes along with the practice of altruism, contributing to sublimate our social relations.

Meditation and aging

There are not only physical but also psychological consequences of aging: it is not only a biological phenomenon, but also a social and psychological one. Cognitive degeneration at the end of life is frequent: it is natural at first. From the age of 40, our brain slowly starts to lose some of its capacities and to age structurally. These changes can be accelerated by our living conditions, linked in particular to the way we are seen by others, to our self-image, but also to the fact that we are more confronted with the death of loved ones and with solitude. Subsequently, sleep disorders increase exponentially, reaching 50% of people over 65. The same is true for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s (excerpt from Matthieu Ricard’s blog).

Olivier De Ladoucette explains that an individual living in a youthful society will live less well in old age than in a society that accepts its age. Today, the increase in life expectancy shows a better alignment between mental and physical health. Personality changes little with age; it depends largely on the acceptance of aging. Aging well means adapting day after day, anticipating and understanding changes in order to set up adaptive processes.

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